Me, Pat and the governor

In August, Gov. Bill Haslam attended one night of the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration, where he was accompanied on the grounds by State Rep. Pat Marsh.

I had taken a number of photos that night, when Pat — who I’ve known professionally since we were in a civic club together, long before he entered the General Assembly — playfully suggested that since I was always taking photos, I needed to be in a photo him with the governor. I went along, and posed for a photo with the two of them. Someone took it on my T-G camera, and the state photographer who was with Gov. Haslam also took it.

The photo from my camera turned out nicely, and I printed out a little snapshot of it at home and shared it with the family, but I didn’t post it anywhere. Posting a photo of myself with an elected official, of either party, just seemed like a bad idea, even if it was just taken on a whim. People might take it differently than it was intended.

I do not wear my political heart on my sleeve — I don’t think it’s a good idea for journalists to do so. I have always endeavored to be fair to both parties, and I like to think I have good relationships with both parties locally. (I think of myself as a centrist, and I’ve voted for candidates from both parties over the years.) My work should speak for itself, and as long as it does then my private political opinions are my own business. Getting too chummy with one side or the other is just an invitation for people to criticize.

I had the day off work yesterday, but my editor e-mailed me to confirm that I would be in the office at 11 a.m. today, saying only that the reason I needed to be here was “a surprise.”

At 11 a.m., a number of T-G employees were summoned to the front office, where Pat Marsh was waiting with a beautifully framed, and autographed, copy of the state photographer’s photo of him, me and the governor. Pat’s autograph thanked me for being “fair and informative.” It was a very kind gesture; I know the spirit in which it was given, and I was moved by it.

All that is a roundabout way of saying I don’t guess it would hurt too much to show you this:

framed photo

For my out-of-state friends, Rep. Marsh is on the left and Gov. Haslam is on the right. Bill Haslam and his brother Jimmy (now owner of the Cleveland Browns) built a small company started by their father into the Pilot truck stop chain.

book proposal

I am toying with doing another self-published book.

This would not be a novel, like my Bad Self-Published Novel. Instead, it would be a book of essays and devotions, including both new material and a few of my favorite sermons updated and rewritten for the printed page.

Don’t get me wrong – I still think I have another novel in me. I started on National Novel Writing Month this year, but the particular framework I had took a left turn and I didn’t think it was going anywhere.

But this morning, as I was sitting in church listening to the beautiful music of our choir’s Christmas cantata, something started me thinking about this idea. I’ve flirted with it in the past, but never really gotten very far with it. But after I got home from church and ate lunch, I pulled out one of my favorite sermons – about the spiritual secrets of the Frisbee — and started rewriting it.

We’ll see if this goes anywhere.

dear santa ….

I haven’t blogged in a while about my weekly time at Learning Way Elementary School as a volunteer with the Raise Your Hand Tennessee program, but I think I’m finding it more satisfying this school year than I ever have before.

Today, Regan gave me three different worksheets to use with the kids, but I really only had time for the first worksheet with each of my three groups. The worksheet was a letter to Santa, with spaces for three gift requests and then three reasons why Santa should bring you things.

Of course, in my actual job, we’re in the middle of processing the scores and scores of Santa letters which the T-G publishes each year (as we have for generations), so it was kind of fun to watch the thought process of such letters being written. Some kids knew exactly what they wanted to write and just needed a little help with spelling. One girl needed a little extra help, and I ended up writing some things for her to trace.

It was just a great time and really put me in the Christmas spirit.

Coming soon: This year’s audio Christmas card

I’m not very good about sending out Christmas cards.

Two years ago, on the spur of the moment, I decided to do an audio recording of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” post it to Soundcloud, and send a link by email to family and friends.

People seemed to enjoy it, so last year I did the same thing with Francis Church’s famous “Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” newspaper column.

I’ve tried to figure out what to do this year. It has to be something in the public domain. I think I’ve found something – it’s short, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I may try to record and edit it tomorrow.

One of these days, I’m going to try my hand at an original story – but I never think about it early enough.

Anyway, whenever I send it out I’ll also be sure and post a link in case I don’t have your email address.

The first two recitations are still online, and you can find them on the Soundcloud web site (my user name is LakeNeuron) or embedded below. Feel free to share them if you like.

2012:

2013 (Sorry about the very slight hum):

silver lining

Bad news, versus thing for which to be thankful:

I’m not due at Dad’s until this afternoon, so I ran to Walmart just now to pick up a few groceries. (I won’t be doing any of my holiday shopping until later.) On the way back, I realized I had to break a $20 so that I could get change so that I could do laundry.

I stopped at a convenience store, and when I got out my front driver’s side tire was completely flat. And this wasn’t a fix-a-flat flat; both front tires need to be replaced. I had trouble with one of the lug nuts, and a stranger was nice enough to stop and help me with it. I have the temporary spare in place now’; I’m not sure whether my tire store is open tomorrow or whether I’ll have to wait until Monday.

I’ve already had to get a new battery this month, and I was not planning on the expense of two new tires.

But on the bright side, it could very easily have gone flat last Friday, on the Interstate, and prevented me getting to Nashville. So that’s a thankful note for the day.

best. night. ever.

Here, my friends, is the story of one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me.

The thing I’m talking about happened this month, but in order to appreciate it we have to jump back a few decades, to the early 1980s in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was a student at what I sometimes refer to as Famous Televangelist University. Christian college can be a stiflingly-conformist environment; I had a dorm director once proclaim in a devotion that it was one of the hardest places to be a Christian, because it was so easy to just drift along with the crowd and do all the right things for all the wrong reasons, or for no reason at all.

Then, as now, there existed both really bad Christian music and really good Christian music. I had the quirky sense of humor to latch on to several artists with satirical sensibilities – songwriters who could laugh at themselves and poke at the foibles of both the secular world and the imperfect church. During my years at ORU, I became a particular fan of the band Daniel Amos, singer-songwriter Randy Stonehill and singer-songwriter Steve Taylor.

Daniel Amos, by the way, played a concert at a church in Smyrna three or four years ago – the first time they’d toured in ages. But I couldn’t go; I was in camp that week, as a volunteer in Mountain T.O.P.’s Adults In Ministry program in Grundy County.

About a year and a half later, my wonderful sister, who had drawn my name for Christmas, gave me a ticket to a nostalgia-themed all-star concert of Christian entertainers from the 1970s and 80s which had Randy Stonehill as one of the headliners. But the concert (which was going to be taped for a TV special) ended up being canceled for some unknown reason.

i-want-to-be-a-cloneFor purposes of this story, then, let’s get back to the third member of that troika. Steve Taylor’s 1983 debut EP, “I Want To Be A Clone,” had a blistering, new-wave title song. That song, and the EP, were a perfect antidote to Christian college conformity. The song was all about Christian conformity, and how some within the church seek to impose their own private beliefs, practices and even language upon others.

By the time that album came out, I was using my own sense of humor to help keep me level at ORU. My good friend, the late Kendall Durfey, and I produced parody radio ads which I played over the public address system prior to on-campus movies (I spent 2 ½ years as ORU’s campus film chairman, and then my senior year I was vice-president of the Student Association in charge of campus activities). I wrote the spots, we both voiced them, and Kendall used his production expertise to make them sound great. In many of the spots, Kendall played a funny character, “Dr. Herb Zimmerman.”

I also wrote a humor column, “Speed Bumps,” for ORU’s campus newspaper, the Oracle, and was in charge of a special April Fool’s edition of the paper my senior year, setting the stage for the April Fool’s story I now do each year at the Times-Gazette.

Time marched on. I graduated in 1984 and moved home to Tennessee a year later. Steve Taylor released several more of his own albums. He was also a member of a crossover band, Chagall Guevara, which had a secular record deal. I went to see Chagall Guevara in Nashville in 1991, the only time I’d ever seen Steve perform live. Steve became a record executive, and played a key role in the success of Sixpence None The Richer, among others.

He directed a number of videos – for himself, for Sixpence and for other artists – and that gave way to him becoming a movie director. I and my girlfriend at the time went to Brentwood Baptist Church to be in the crowd scenes for “The Second Chance,” a movie Steve directed starring Michael W. Smith.

More recently, Steve directed a movie adaptation of “Blue Like Jazz” by Donald Miller.

Now, after a 10-year absence, Steve is making music again. He’s put together a new band, The Perfect Foil. Their new album was released earlier this week. A few weeks before that, Steve started releasing videos to promote the new album.

I enjoyed all three. While watching the last one, “Goliath,” I happened to click the “like” button on YouTube. Because of the way my YouTube account is configured, that automatically generated a Twitter post stating that I had liked the video.

Right away, the official Twitter account for Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil favorited and retweeted my post. No real surprise there; any artist with a good social media team might have done the same.

But then, almost right away, I got a message from the account asking if I was the same John Carney who had attended ORU in the 1980s.

I had to admit that I was. I was also, at that moment, pretty curious.

The message came from Steve’s manager, Nick Barre. Nick was a few years behind me at ORU. He remembers the funny fake radio ads and the humor column. He said that Kendall and I inspired him, and made him want to be creative too.

We could stop the story right there and it would be pretty darn amazing. This guy remembers my humor – 30 years later! – and actually calls me an inspiration. He took the time to introduce himself and tell me so on a social media site. I was deeply flattered. That compliment alone made my night, and it’s probably the most amazing thing about this story.

But then, Nick continued. Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil would be playing Nov. 21 at the Cannery, a Nashville nightclub. The band was billing it as their album release party.

“I’d love to put you on the guest list,” wrote Nick.

Nope; sorry. Not interested. I mean, why would I want to be an invited guest for a show by one of my long-time favorite artists? That wouldn’t be any fun, would it?

Two of my ORU friends, Emory Stagmer in Maryland and Darrell Grizzle in the Atlanta area, went to earlier concerts on the tour and gave them glowing reviews.

I arrived at The Cannery early enough to get one of the last few free parking spots, before people started having to park in the paid lot next door. I must have gotten there about 20 minutes before the doors opened at 7 p.m.; it was an 8 o’clock show.

While I was waiting outside, a man in a plaid shirt darted out, and we instantly, if hesitantly, recognized each other from Facebook profile photos.

“John?”

“Nick?”

Nick was busy with his managerial duties, but he stopped to introduce himself and welcome me to the concert (as if I were doing him a favor rather than the other way around). He mentioned that The Perfect Foil’s lead guitarist, Jimmy Abegg, was “under the weather,” which I mistakenly thought meant he’d have to miss the concert. It later turned out he had gotten severe food poisoning while the band was in Atlanta for that show earlier in the week. (Darrell, do we need to educate you Georgians on food safety?) He was still not feeling well at show time, and Steve made reference to this, but you couldn’t tell it from his playing.

Nick did, however, tell me that there would be “surprises” during the concert.

I made polite conversation with a few other people standing there on the porch – a lot of them, not surprisingly, were my age, and the porch looked like Old Fart Jubilee, to borrow a phrase from Joe Bob Briggs.

The Cannery Ballroom is one of those big open standing-room-only nightclubs. There are no tables around the perimeter or anything like that. I was there early, and so I was thrilled to be standing very, very close to the stage.

WP_20141121_007The opening act was the husband-and-wife duo Fleming & John – not a coincidence, since John Mark Painter also happens to be the bass player for The Perfect Foil. I’d heard the name but wasn’t really familiar with their work. I was blown away – they were great, melodic and entertaining. I will definitely be checking out their catalog. I posted a photo to Facebook after their set, and was tickled when my former castmate Sharon Kay Edwards responded by saying that “I’m Not Afraid” had been her “high school jam.”

Later, during his set, Steve said his goal next year is to release a new Fleming & John record.

WP_20141121_017Then, of course, it was time for Steve and the new band. They were every bit as good as I thought they’d be. I was worried about standing for three hours. Steve, who is 4 ½ years older than me, rubber-legged and skinny as a rail, bounced around the stage, flailing and crouching and spinning and leaping with the same energy I’d seen at that Chagall Guevara concert in 1991. He has an incredible stage presence.

The set was a perfect mix of new and old songs.

They opened with “Only A Ride,” which had been the first video released from “Goliath,” but “I Want To Be A Clone” popped up early in the set as well.

I was lost in the music throughout.

When the show was over, we screamed for the encore. Steve, true to form, came back out and performed – so help me – a cover of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” Then he launched into the real encore, “Jim Morrison’s Grave.” I had seen reference to this having been the encore at one of the previous concerts.

But it wasn’t the only encore.

After that, Steve brought out Dave Perkins, Lynn Nichols and Mike Mead from Chagall Guevara. Mead displaced Peter Furler at the drum kit, but Abegg and Painter stayed on stage, and The Perfect Foil / Chagall Guevara peformed a cover of “Gloria” and then “Violent Blue,” off the Chagall Guevara album. That was the surprise Nick had hinted at, and what a surprise and thrill it was.

Steve-Door

Steve had promised to hang out and meet people after the show, and he was as good as his word. I had brought a 1984 issue of The Wittenburg Door with Steve on the cover, and he signed it for me. Nick was standing nearby and was kind enough to repeat his compliments in Steve’s presence, but the fact of the matter is that Steve was just as gracious to every single person who wanted to speak to him.

I’m an idiot, by the way, for not getting a photo of me and Nick as well.

WP_20141121_042

By this point, it was after midnight. I told Nick I had to get back to Shelbyville so that I could get up early for a Relay For Life fundraiser at the Times-Gazette. Nick repeated his story of how Kendall and my parody radio spots, and to a lesser extent my humor column, inspired him, and how seriously he took it when he got the chance to program ORU’s campus radio station.

At this point, I’m wondering to myself: If I was really as talented as Nick perceived me to be, what happened? How is it that I’m now 52, overweight, single, seemingly at a career dead end, and fighting my way out of poor financial practices from earlier in life? I was kind of grateful that Nick didn’t see my white 1995 Geo Metro with one red door, the one I literally prayed before the trip would make it to Nashville and back without incident.

But this wasn’t a night for dwelling on the negative. This was a night to accept a great compliment, enjoy a great show, relive some memories and get to know some great new songs. This was, in short, one of the best nights I’ve had in some time – one of the best nights ever.

Life imitates art

I’m a little behind pace on my National Novel Writing Month novel. But I had a vacation day yesterday, and caught up just a little. I am taking comp time today, because I’ll work a full day Saturday covering various events, and hope to catch up a little more today.

Just a few days ago, I had my main character worrying about something going wrong with his car.

This morning, I had (re)scheduled a lunch with Chris Shofner, a former co-worker (Chris was editor when I first joined the T-G in 1985). I went out to my car at the time I wanted to leave, and – it wouldn’t turn over. Chris came over and gave me a jump start, and I got the car to the place where I normally take it – which has changed hands since the last time I went there.

They tested and ruled out the alternator, and then tested the battery – bad. Not as expensive as an alternator would have been, but still exactly the kind of thing my main character was worrying about in the novel. Chris and I had our lunch while they were putting in a new battery.

If I have this kind of control over time and space, maybe I should have my character in the novel win the lottery.

Table for one, please

A month ago, we had a belated cast party for “Daddy’s Dyin’… Who’s Got The Will?” at one of our local restaurants and had such a great time we decided to do it again a month later. At the time, all I was thinking about was that the first Tuesday of the month was the only one in which I had no county meetings to cover. I didn’t think about it being Election Night, when I’d have to be at the courthouse collecting results. When I realized the conflict a few days ago, I had to beg off.

Meanwhile, I ran into an old co-worker on Halloween night and he suggested we get together for lunch. Tuesday sounded fine to me — this time, I knew it was Election Day, but I also know that during the day, when the voting is actually taking place, isn’t necessarily that hectic. In fact, I need to take a little comp time during the day to make up for the fact that I’m working long hours in the evening, so a relaxed lunch with an old friend sounded like a great idea.

But the friend called me this morning — he’d suddenly realized it was Election Day, automatically assumed I’d be too busy for lunch, and went ahead and made other plans before calling me.

So now, I’m eating alone for both lunch and dinner — which is par for the course, but in this particular case a bit of a disappointment.

Day two, 4,100 words

bookcoverI might end up writing a little more before I go to bed tonight, but I seem to be at a stopping point.

I am officially ahead of the 50,000-word pace on my National Novel Writing Month project, “The Unreliable Narrator,” but I’m not as far ahead of pace as one would expect to be after two weekend days. I had sort of hoped to get 5,000 this weekend, especially since I may not have much time to write Tuesday, Election Day.

I have gotten off to a mixed start. I like some things, but what I’ve got so far is a little more scattershot, a little too autobiographical, and a little more rambling, than I had intended. But this is NaNoWriMo – it doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be 1,667 words a day. It may be that nothing I produce this month will be marketable. Or it may be that there Participant-2014-Square-Buttonwill be parts of what I produce that I can turn into something marketable. But it’s more about the discipline and the experience than about crafting the next Great American Novel on this particular try.

One fun thing is that three of my “Daddy’s Dyin … Who’s Got The Will?” castmates are also taking the plunge this month, and so I’ll get to commiserate with them. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll get to make it to our cast get-together Tuesday night – I had forgotten about the election back when we scheduled this.

juggling act

I had three different groups today during my Raise Your Hand Tennessee volunteer time at Learning Way.

Ms. Aymett had given me a basket of several different activities – but several of the little Ziploc bags, which she had described to me as containing rhyming words, did not rhyme. I looked at the pictures, and I looked at the teacher’s list of words, and there was not one rhyming combination in the first bag, and I don’t think there was one in the second bag either. (I think she just grabbed the wrong bags.)

So we moved on to one of the other games, where the kids are given are some words and asked to put them together into a sentence. The kids were surprisingly eager to do this.

The group dynamics of this were interesting, and I had to watch to make sure I was managing them as well as I could. In one particular group, there was a boy who was very pro-active (and right, a good part of the time). I wanted to reward him for being right, but I didn’t want him to take over the process or take too much time away from others.

I was well aware that other students (like the very quiet girl sitting right next to me) might or might not have the right answer, and that might be unrelated to whether or not they were willing to jump in. I had to be very deliberate – and I’m not sure I was successful – about trying to manage things so that everyone had a hand in the process.

I love this experience – but by the end of the hour, I’ve usually been keenly reminded what an amateur I am.

My third group was just two children, both girls, and with that one it was a lot easier. We breezed through the sentence game, and had time for the only other thing in the basket: some flash cards with words and letters on them. I thought this would be a hard sell, but they were happy to demonstrate their expertise.